Having co-authored a number of research publications as a student at National University of Mongolia and with a passion to learn conservation best practices from top schools in the U.S. and U.K., by many accounts Sumbee had a brilliant future ahead of him. But he never made it to the Gobi.
Concerned, his colleagues and friends rallied to find him. “I found out he was missing and was in constant contact with people on the ground trying to locate him,” Unudelgerekh Batkhuu, board member of the Mongol Ecology Center, told The Diplomat.
On November 11, Sumbee’s body was found floating in Lake Hovsgol in northern Mongolia, thousands of kilometers away from the Gobi. His death was ruled a drowning, according to the autopsy, while the police ruled it a suicide. “It was devastating,” Batkhuu said.
“He taught kids how to interact with animals. He was more of a visionary than any of us. He would not go and kill himself as the police say.”
A History of Threats
On November 17, the Snow Leopard Trust published a cautious yet mournful press release that one of their own had passed away.
Shortly after this, more than 40 international researchers, including the Snow Leopard Trust, submitted a formal letter to members of parliament and certain government ministers and published it online, requesting a formal inquiry into a death they deemed suspicious and possibly a murder.
“Our concern is that the powers that be will sweep the case under the rug and not do a proper investigation,” explained Bob McIntosh from the U.S., also a board member of the Mongol Ecology Center. Along with two prominent researchers, Clyde Goulden and Olaf Jensen, McIntosh had initiated the letter and organized the signatures.
According to colleagues, friends and family, Sumbee had been attacked by knife point in central Ulaanbaatar in May 2014, in an incident initially thought to have been a robbery gone wrong. He healed from his wounds and by July 2014, had travelled to Seattle, Washington in the U.S. to further his studies on snow leopards, supported by a scholarship.
His sister Munkh-Orgil Tumursukh, remembers the first attack well. She noticed something different about her brother. As part of a family of ardent conservationists, she is studying a degree in eco-tourism in the U.S. and met her older brother in Seattle for two days. Usually wearing t-shirts without collars, this time he wore his shirt collar up.
“I said ‘why do you wear the collar of your shirt like this, brother? Bad boys do this and you are not a bad boy.’ I reached for his collar and pulled it down and then saw this mark. This scar. He also had one on his arm.”
Becoming distraught at the sight of the scar, she pleaded with him to tell her what happened.
“Someone tried to kill me,” he told her. But then he became cheerful. “My sister, don’t worry. I am alive now and here with you.”
Later that summer in September and back in Mongolia, Sumbee stayed at Ikh Nart Camp with several other biologist and conservationists.
“During this trip, I got to know Sumbee as he was there,” said Colleen McCulloch, an ecologist in mammal conservation. “One night we were sitting around talking with five or six other biologists. One or two had asked him about [his attack]. I remember Sumbee saying ‘I had one or two bad guys who were causing problems.’”
His second attack came in the winter that year, according to fellow conservationists. Men in a black car abducted him in Ulaanbaatar. He was taken outside the city and threatened with death if he didn’t stay away from the Gobi. The threats included his three siblings, which may be why Sumbee tried to protect those close to him from learning too much information. He did, however, report it to the police, who apparently did not take him seriously as he could not identify his attackers.
The third attack came in April 2015 in the South Gobi. As Sumbee was driving by motorcycle over a mountain pass two men on bikes came up alongside him and struck him hard. He clung to his bike and kept driving, but it soon became apparent to him that he was hurt. He sought help from friends and was taken to a hospital by helicopter.
His parents, Naraa and Tumursukh, explain the attack was severe. “One wound below the chest was 4.5 cm deep, right belly 2 cm, and left belly 3.5 cm deep. Because police didn’t recover any evidence or prints they assumed he inflicted those wounds to himself. This is how police built their theories [that he was suicidal],” they explained through a translator.
B. Unudelgerekh, who described her relationship with Sumbee as that of a big sister, remembers this time period as well. “I spoke to Sumbee about it. When he was stabbed, he was encouraged to take a break from the Gobi but he was so concerned about protecting the animals. He used to say to me: ‘Don’t worry…’”
Despite the risks, Sumbee was back to work by September or October 2015, working with the Snow Leopard Trust. According to family, friends and colleagues, his passion for his work kept him coming back, despite the dangers and their concerns.
“When his dad [Tumursukh] talked about ibex and argali, he was the happiest ever. And Sumbee was the same with snow leopards,” said Unudelgerekh.
Recalled Clyde Goulden, one of the organizers of the letter to parliament, “I worked a lot with Tumursukh and Naraa in conservation efforts [at Lake Hovsgol]. He never hesitated to stop illegal fishing or enforce the strictly protected areas, for example Russians poaching in the area. He could be aggressive in his work but he was always trying to do the right thing. If [Sumbee] was anything like his father in his conservation work, I can understand why he might put people off who weren’t interested in conservation.”
His father believes that it is possible the police thought Sumbee was “not important” to his family because his work in the Gobi was far from the family home in northern Lake Hovsgol.
The Tost-Tosonbomba mountain range is located near China’s border in the Gurvantes soum (district) and supports a community of 233 herder families with approximately 40,000 goats, sheep, camels and horses, according to a 2008 report. Herders used to shoot snow leopards that attacked their livestock, but steep penalties as well as work within the local community on preservation have made this less common. The penalties it attracts also appear to have made poaching less of a problem as well.
Mining however, remains a pressing threat and one that is common to the local community as well.
Badral Yondon, Chair of Ulaanbaatar Tourism Association, told The Diplomat, “I met many herders who support [Sumbee] and his work and actually came together to fight off mining companies.”
His parents don’t believe that the Gobi herder community wished harm on Sumbee. “Sumbee had a personality and life was not of the type people would want to kill. He was a good kid, helpful, well mannered, and passionate about his work.”
But they have suspicions of powerful interests behind local mining permits. According to local media, MP B. Choijilsuren owns a significant percentage of the permits in the area. In contrast, MP Bat-Erdene, deemed a supportive presence to the community, owns mining permits adjacent to the area.
“We think that his death was caused by the conflict between snow leopard habitat he was protecting around Mt. Tost-Tosonbomba and mining interests. [We think] this was a premeditated murder by mining and ninja [miners],” said Sumbee’s parents.
With the masks and unmarked car abduction, no one knows for sure who was behind the threats to Sumbee.
“It’s a multi-layered onion of mining permits, traditional local economic activities, and government, local and international interests here,” McIntosh explains. Though the exact number of mining licenses cited varies according to reports, he believes there are “about 19 – 21.”
Sumbee’s final attack seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Though friends and colleagues encouraged him to take a step back to let things cool down, he could not be dissuaded.
“I knew my brother had problems [with threats], even though my family said not to worry,” his sister Munkh-Orgil tearfully explained by Skype. “But I never thought these people would murder him.”
By early January, Sumbee’s father, a well-known and respected ranger and biologist in his own right working in Hovsgol, was displeased with the lack of progress on the case. He worked to debunk the suicide theory through evidence he had gathered in Ulaanbaatar. Sumbee, a diligent researcher who co-authored at least 10 publications on his work with snow leopards and ibex, was apparently just as thorough in recording the threats he received on his smartphone.
“We found a phone recording of Sumbee chasing people away regarding the mining licenses,” Badral said. “Tumursukh is smart and he knows the legal system. He has recordings and gave some to the authorities.”
Tumursukh had also found a phone recording made after Sumbee’s abduction and before his death, left in his son’s car between the seats. He passed a portion to a local journalist, who aired it in a televised interview. In one segment of the recording Sumbee, says:
“Do you think I’m going to beg you to please spare my life? No, I will never do that. I’ll never beg you to spare my life.”
The public’s response was swift and generated a great deal of controversy. Local media, through extensive televised segments, presented not only the phone recording released by Tumursukh, but emails between Sumbee and his local employer, the Snow Leopard Conservation Fund, where he described the attacks, which were translated by friends into English on a blog. The local employer had contacted the police, but they had dismissed the case due to a lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, international conservationists continued worked on their end to bring support to the case. The letter gained the immediate support of Member of Parliament Ts. Oyungerel.
“We [also] were concerned that other international NGOs and researchers would be reluctant to work in Mongolia if Sumbee’s death was not properly investigated,” said McIntosh. The Tost-Tosonbomba snow leopard range has hosted research from 18 different institutions and six different countries, according to a report.
Rebecca Watters, executive director of The Wolverine Foundation, and director of The Mongolian Wolverine Project, who also signed her name to the letter, agrees. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen in Mongolia. When I was working in Cambodia, I had armed guards to protect me because we [the conservation community] had rangers killed in Cambodia.”
“Mongolia, by contrast, has rule of law and doesn’t have these situations happen.”
After Tumursukh’s media campaign, MP L. Erdenechimeg also began publicly supporting the investigation. The Minister of Justice D. Dorligjav, as the campaign’s supporters had hoped, became involved. He criticized the suicide ruling as a mark of police incompetence, saying important evidence had been lost in investigating the case as a homicide.
While the support is welcomed by Sumbee’s parents, they have expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in the police investigation. At press time, they were not hopeful the killers would be caught.
When asked what justice would look like to them, they said “We do not really know what can be done.” Although they previously had the support of a lawyer working pro-bono, Sumbee’s parents now say they will probably need to hire a lawyer.
Sumbee’s sister Munkh-Orgil thinks the police have been “working inside the box.”
“They need to ‘break the box,’ ” she explained.
One thing is clear. Most of the numerous sources The Diplomat spoke with described Sumbee as someone who would not back down from a fight to protect the snow leopards entrusted in his care.
“Perhaps if he had looked the other way or not challenged them it would have been a different outcome. But Sumbee wasn’t the kind of guy who could watch other people causing damage and not try to stop it. He cared deeply about protecting the environment,” said McCulloch.
It is no surprise that those close to Sumbee want him to have the same kind of unrelenting representation, and his legacy is being staunchly promoted by his tenacious father Tumursukh.
In a recent speech, Tumursukh told media. “I will uncover the murderers who [killed] my son, I will not stop until I find the truth behind my son’s death, till my last breath.”
Michelle Tolson is a freelance journalist based in Asia.